Monday, November 24, 2008

Beads from the Inventory of Philip II

A recent discussion on the Paternosters mailing list has made me think about all of the fascinating -- and often knotty! -- little questions that arise when we try to make sense out of the very brief descriptions of paternoster beads that survive in inventories, wills and similar lists. Often the description is all we have in the way of data about what the beads were like.

As I've commented elsewhere, these descriptions were not really written for us, hundreds of years later. They were written, for the most part, to assist in keeping track of someone's possessions during life, or sorting out how much they were worth and who they should be passed on to after the owner's death. Since whoever was doing the sorting usually had the actual beads in front of them, only the minimum description was needed, just enough to identify which of several possible sets of beads was being referred to.

On top of that, we are also dealing with historical spelling and vocabulary, which -- to say the least -- are often not identical to the modern versions of either. And as you might expect, some of the words used in the descriptions were never common words in the first place, or else they're being used in a specialized sense -- rather like the word "gauds" in English, which was originally borrowed from the Latin word for joy (Gaudete = Rejoice!) and can mean jewels or ornaments in a general sense, but which when applied to Christian prayer beads specifically refers to distinctive "markers" separating groups of other beads.

The recent discussion on the Paternosters list provided an excellent example, and several of us amateur scholars attacked it with zest.

The question came from Katherine Barich, to whom I am profoundly indebted because she just loves collecting and reading through old inventories in search of interesting bits about historical clothing. This takes a peculiar intellectual gift that I don't think I have. Fortunately she has been very generous about sharing what she finds, and periodically I get an e-mail from her with more paternoster listings for my slowly growing database.

Here's the entry she found in the inventory of Phillip II of Spain, taken in 1594. It is in "Archivo Documental Espanol - Tomo X - Inventarios Reales Bienes Muebles Que Pertenecieron a Felipe II" by F. J. Sanchez Canton.

Un rosario, que tiene sesenta y tres perlas avemariadas y otras cuatro en la cruz, con siete estremos de oro, labrado de medio relieve, con nuebe ruvies en cada un y otro estremo de oro en la cruz con diez ruvies. Tasado en trecientos y noventa y seis ducados.

Philip II, son of Emperor Charles V, was a Hapsburg and brought most of Spain (and for part of the time, Portugal as well) under his rule for a substantial swath of the 16th century. Here's a portrait of Philip II with a rosary, although clearly these are not the beads described in the inventory (for one thing, they're the wrong color):

I'm going to walk through the process I went through to try to make sense of this entry, because I think it's a good example of the sorts of things we frequently encounter.

Here's what Babelfish says (these "translations" always make me giggle):

A rosary, that has sixty and three Rep them avemariadas and other four in the cross, with seven estremos of gold, worked of average relief, with nine rubies in each and a other estremo of gold in the cross with ten rubies. Appraised in three hundred and ninety and six duchies.

OK, fixing the obvious idiocies, we have:

A rosary that has 63 Ave Maria beads [pearls]?, and four more in the cross, with seven [gauds]? of gold, worked in middle relief [bas- relief]?, with nine rubies in each; and another [gaud]? of gold: the cross with ten rubies. Appraised at 396 ducats.

I'm grateful, by the way, to the colleague who clued me in to Babelfish as a deeply flawed, but nonetheless very useful, tool in deciphering a language. What it does do well is to translate a lot of the common words for you, all in one fell swoop, so you don't have to spend your time looking up words like nuebe and sesenta and tasado. Then you attack the less common words one by one, or those that Babelfish clearly doesn't have a clue about.

This is especially helpful for anyone who isn't a full-time scholar. I, for instance, can read French reasonably well considering that the last time I formally studied it was decades ago, and I understand enough about most of the Romance and Germanic languages that I can at least tell which parts of the sentence are what and which way the grammar is going. But for the rest, it's a matter of lots of looking in dictionaries and a good deal of guesswork.

A bit of digging in my ancient Spanish dictionary (Appleton's, 1943, which I got for free from a book exchange) reveals that perlas are indeed pearls, and not (as in German) beads: the normal Spanish words for beads seem to include abalorio and (somewhat more obscurely) chaquillo. (The dictionary lists several more, including cuenta which seems to literally mean "counter.")

Estremo isn't in the dictionary. Hm. I wonder if it's supposed to be estreno, which has to do with "commencement, beginning, inauguration." (16th-century Spanish spelling? Who knows?) At any rate, there are seven of these estremos (plus one), which makes sense if there is one before each decade and extra ones before and after the last three beads.

The online dictionaries I find in a quick search don't contain either estremo or estreno. Going the other way, they prefer to translate "gaud" as adorno (decoration) or joya (jewel). Appleton's translates "gaud" as objecto charro (showy or flashy object).

If the estremos are indeed gauds, we are still not quite home free with the translation. We still have to decipher "y otro estremo de oro en la cruz con diez ruvies." Literally this says "and another estremo of gold en the cross with ten rubies."

First question, what does en mean in this context? Prepositions are notoriously tricky to translate, especially since their use is often strongly idiomatic. Literally the estremo seems to be "in" the cross, which doesn't make very much sense, so I would guess it means "next to."

Second question: which object has ten rubies? The lack of punctuation, or of any relative pronoun, means it's not clear whether we have an estremo with ten rubies, and a cross, or an estremo, and a cross with ten rubies. The fact that all the other estremos have nine rubies each makes me think it's a little more likely that the rubies belong to the estremo. We've also been told already that the cross has four pearls, so perhaps it doesn't need rubies as well. Alas, the jewels were probably re-set and the gold melted down long ago, so we'll never know.

A final interesting point about this rosary: it has 63 pearls. This strongly suggests a Brigittine rosary, which has six decades (rather than the usual five) and three extra beads at the end. I've heard this was a popular type of rosary in the 16th century, but haven't run across many examples. The only surviving example I can recall is this one, which is Portuguese and 17th century:


There are several ways the beads of such a rosary could be arranged: this one has all 63 beads in one loop, with six groups of ten and a final group of three. There are only six gauds here, as there are none next to the cross. Other examples of rosaries often do seem, at this period, to have gauds beginning and ending all of the decades including the first and last, so I would not be surprised at all to see a Brigittine rosary with eight gauds.